Full Body Scanners: What’s Next?

 

Organizers of National Opt Out Day, — the Wednesday before Thanksgiving when air travelers were urged to opt out of the full-body scanners at security checkpoints and instead submit to full-body patdowns — were outfoxed by the TSA. The government pre-empted the protest by turning off the machines in most airports during the Thanksgiving weekend. Everyone went through the metal detectors, just as before.

 

Now that Thanksgiving is over, the machines are back on and the "enhanced" pat-downs have resumed. Perhaps more people would prefer to have naked images of themselves seen by TSA agents in another room, than have themselves intimately touched by a TSA agent right in front of them.

 

And PETN is what the TSA is looking for these days. That's pentaerythritol tetranitrate, the plastic explosive that both the Shoe Bomber and the Underwear Bomber attempted but failed to detonate. It's what was mailed from Yemen. It's in Iraq and Afghanistan. Guns and traditional bombs are passé; PETN is the terrorist tool of the future.

 

The problem is that no scanners or puffers can detect PETN; only swabs and dogs work. What the TSA hopes is that they will detect the bulge if someone is hiding a wad of it on their person.

 

So what's next? Strip searches? Body cavity searches? This is can get pretty ridiculous, Bruce Schneier, a thought leader on security, insightfully scoffs at the logical conclusions of TSA escalating efforts to search everyone everywhere.

 

Dr. Schneier counters the TSA approach with the following reasonable conclusions: The truth is that exactly two things have made air travel safer since 9/11: reinforcing cockpit doors and convincing passengers they need to fight back. The TSA should continue to screen checked luggage. They should start screening airport workers. And then they should return airport security to pre-9/11 levels and let the rest of their budget be used for better purposes. Investigation and intelligence is how we're going to prevent terrorism, on airplanes and elsewhere. It's how we caught the liquid bombers. It's how we found the Yemeni printer-cartridge bombs. And it's our best chance at stopping the next serious plot.

 

Because if a group of well-planned and well-funded terrorist plotters makes it to the airport, the chance is pretty low that those blue-shirted crotch-groping water-bottle-confiscating TSA agents are going to catch them. The agents are trying to do a good job, but the deck is so stacked against them that their job is impossible. Airport security is the last line of defense, and it's not a very good one.